“When the rich wage war it’s the poor die.” ~Linkin Park, Hands Held High
“Holy cow, there it is,” I said to Jody as I caught sight through our airliner’s window of the distinct “T-bridge” which served as the aiming point for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is 1945. “What an incredibly easy feature to spot,” I thought to myself rather coldly in a manner reminiscent of my bombardier/navigator background flying nuclear-armed attack aircraft with the US Navy. I hadn’t expected to spot this little-known aspect of that fateful bombing on our flight into Hiroshima, but what better way to start our Far East Fling in this iconic Japanese city.
This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a single weapon dropped from a single aircraft that effectively destroyed the city and killed an estimated 140,000 human beings. All politics and revisionist history aside, August 6th should serve as a time for everyone to reflect on the very nature of these devastatingly inhuman weapons. And our visits to the city’s ground- zero park and monuments provided another uniquely Japanese perspective. If you are interested in the scale of destruction visited upon Hiroshima during WWII, check out what would happen to your own hometown if attacked by the same sized weapon, see Hometown Atomic Bombing. Keep in mind that modern air-delivered nuclear weapons are many orders of magnitude more powerful than those of WWII; their use on densely populated urban centers would result in casualties numbering a million or more.
Before I continue, and regardless of your perspective on the use of nuclear weapons, there exists an inextricably truism about war, one that has remained unchanged as long as there has been armed conflict:
When the rich wage war, it is (primarily) the poor (and innocent) that die.
Sure, there is a cadre of well-educated and financially secure people who chose the military as a profession or answer a patriotic call. And yes, generals do from time to time die in conflict. Politicians? Almost never, unless executed afterwards. But such losses of the more elite sectors of society pale in comparison to the suffering of the masses. The vast number of casualties grieved in war has always been that of bystander civilians…either through direct action – like the intentional bombing of civilian populations, or through secondary effects of war – such as disease, famine, and the hazards of unexploded ordnance.
I’ve blogged about the atomic bombings of Japan before (see They Deserved It for more). We dropped the bombs at the time in order to avoid what would have been a bloody ground assault on the Japanese mainland, which would have cost millions of lives at a minimum. Putting aside the still-raging debate of whether or not Japan would have surrendered the fall of 1945 or winter of ’46 without the atomic attacks, the bombs worked in avoiding countless deaths…on both sides of the Pacific.
But there’s nothing like visiting Hiroshima to underscore the stark reality of nuclear warfare. Taking a small ferry into the city from nearby Miyajima Island, our first eyewitness views of the iconic “A-Bomb Dome” came into view as we rounded Hiroshima’s peace memorial park. The memorial, still standing tall under bright blue skies, is eerily silent in its nearly demolished state.
The A-Bomb Dome is an iconic structure, left nearly as it was in 1945 (see Ie Island’s Municipal Pawn Shop for another example of leaving only a single unaltered structure as a war memorial). Internationally recognized as a symbol of war, it immediately exudes the inexplicably suffering that the modern atomic age can bring. But our day and night-time visits there were only the beginning of our growing awareness of the multi-dimensional anguish experienced there during the closing days of WWII.
The Peace Memorial Park – of which the A-Bomb Dome is part, is a huge greenspace near the city center of Hiroshima. Surrounded by rivers and canals, the park exhibits various memorials, sculptures, and testimonies, along with the remains of tens of thousands of victims hastily cremated in the days following the attack. The combined ashes of over 70,000 people are still kept in within a burial mound found in a quiet corner of the park; there are still over 800 individual containers of ashes of known (named) people still unclaimed.
The Children’s Peace Monument in the park is one of the more popular and most visited. Here under the “Atomic Bomb Children Statue” is told the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia caused by bomb-produced radiation. She is immortalized at the top of the statue found there, holding a wire crane above her head. In the days prior to her death, Sadako attempted to create a thousand folded paper cranes in hopes of helping to rid the world of nuclear weapons; tradition in Japan holds that if one folds such a number of origami cranes, they are granted on wish. Sadako achieved her goal and continued to fold even more cranes in the last months of her life. But ultimately she passed away in October 1955, her one wish left not granted…. Her story is presented in more detail and accompanied by many photos in the nearby Peace Memorial Museum.
Today the Children’s Peace Monument serves to commemorate both Sadako and the thousands of other child victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. People from all over the world offer thousands of brightly colored origami cranes, both in honor of those children, and in the hopes of a safe, more peaceful world.
Atomic bombing survivors, referred to as hibakusha in Japan, today number only about 183,000. Their average age is 80, very close to Japan’s average life expectancy. And many are still fighting illnesses and injuries traced to the bombings seven decades ago. We encountered a few of these hibakusha during our walks through the Peace Memorial Park, where they set up small ad hoc displays and tell their stories. Some even sell books, or offer internet sites dedicated to their story and/or cause.
One survivor we met was only a small child at the time of the attack, while another was yet to be born, still inside her mother’s womb. These witnesses, both of which spoke very good English, provided a unique, live first-hand account of the bombing that cannot be experienced in any other way. Hiroshima is doing all they can to record these personal accounts; it is important these stories do not disappear, lost to time and circumstance.
But it was visiting the Peace Memorial Museum located in the park that the horrors of Hiroshima are presented on a personal, human level. Perhaps the most moving – in a long line of terribly tragic stories, mostly involving children and teenagers, is that concerning a lone tricycle, mangled and rusted, displayed in a Plexiglas case under subdued lighting. This child’s bike remains in silent tribute to the demise of just one 3-year-old boy, but is analogous to the misery felt throughout the city so long ago in August of 1945. The boy’s name was Shinichi Tetsutani, and was nicknamed “Shin” by his family (see Shin’s Tricycle for an illustrated account by Shin’s father).
“The air was filled with the sandpapery sounds of cicadas rubbing their legs together in the nearby trees,” states Shin’s father, Nobuo Tetsunani, describing the calm and sunny morning of the bombing. Shin and his best friend, a little neighbor girl named Kimi, were outside playing with his favorite toy, a tricycle with red handlebars, no different from one might find in the hands of an American child deep in the heart of the United States. At 8:15 that morning, though, the first atomic bomb used in anger detonated high over the city. In a bright flash, everything changed for everyone. Forever.
The massive over-pressure created by the blast and expanding fireball created an “explosion so terrible, a flash so blindingly bright, I thought the world had ended,” the boy’s father said. “Then, just a quickly, everything went black.” Shin’s home collapsed in on the entire family.
In the chaos following the attack Shin could not be located. His family frantically searched among the wreckage of their destroyed home, where they found the small boy pinned under a heavy and fractured beam of the house. He was badly hurt. “His face was bleeding and swollen,” his father solemnly recalls. “He was too weak to talk but his hand still held just the red handlebar grip from his tricycle. Kimi was gone too, lost somewhere under the house.” Shin would not survive the night.
Shin needed to be buried, but Nobuo could not bear the thought of his son being left so alone in a faraway grave. Instead, he decided to bury Shin in a grave in the backyard of their flattened home. He was placed to rest with Kimi, both lying beside his beloved tricycle.
Decades later, in 1985, Shin‘s father decided to move his son’s remains and entomb them more properly in the family grave. He and Kimi‘s mother unearthed the backyard grave, where they found “the little white bones of Kimi and Shin, hand in hand as we had placed them.” But Shin‘s father had all but forgotten about the tricycle. The very next day he donated the trike to the Peace Memorial Museum in the hopes of making the world a safe place for all children to play. And today, the legacy of this 3-year-old boy continues to remind us all of the horrors of war and of the atomic age.
Yes, the stories featured in the museum primarily focus on children and teenagers, which of course maximizes the emotional impact on visitors and makes it appear, on the surface, that every victim of the bombing was wholly innocent of wrongdoing in WWII. The museum focuses little on Japan’s significant military presence in Hiroshima, nor on their culpability in causing the War in the Pacific or the long history of crimes against humanity committed by their forces in the region starting in Manchuria in 1931. But, as the opening quote states, those most responsible remained unaffected. It was, by and large, innocent civilian bystanders, those trying to live their lives as best they could under extreme circumstance beyond their control or influence, who suffered the most.
Interesting, an oral survey was offered us by Japanese volunteers upon exiting the museum. Only a couple of questions was asked, one of which was, “Did today’s visit change your opinion of nuclear weapons?” I answered truthfully and said, “No,” but quickly qualified my answer that I was already anti-nuclear weapons before visiting. I wonder if most Japanese think America and most Americans as pro-nuclear.
Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to ridding ourselves of the atomic plague. The world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and countries in possession all seem reluctant to break their collective addiction to the notion of nuclear deterrence or strength and security through the atom (see Fortress of Peace for a future than can be quite different). Worse, other nations who wish to be recognized actors on the global stage take every effort in obtaining such destructive technologies. A visit to Hiroshima can help to change both perspectives, even if it is one person at a time.
And maybe, in a not-to-distant future, the rich will stop waging wars so that we all can live.